There are some names that are better off shortened. Gitau is one of them. So Anthony Gitau was simply called Gee. That’s what his mates called him. That’s what everybody called him. He was tall, slim, and handsome. When he stood next to you he always blocked the sun. And he was funny. So when Alice married him she became Mrs. Gee and they got three kids – little Gees, if you want.
Then Gee died. In 2007.
I’m sorry if this story is moving on too fast for you but we’ve had an almost stagnant 2020, so strap in, let’s get on with it because the times when we would gather around the watercooler, shooting the shit are gone.
So, as I was saying, Gee, died. In 2007.
He was sick. It started with a cough. In the morning Alice would wake up and hear him coughing in the shower. Those coughs that don’t go away; they keep hacking and hacking like someone digging in darkness. He’d be standing at the window, buttoning his shirt getting ready to go to work (he was a teacher, as was she) and he’d stop to cough. “Have that checked,” she’d tell him, but you know men. Our intestines will be coming out before we accept that, okay, maybe someone should look at it. We will die before we accept that we need to see a doctor. So they saw a doctor, who listened to his heart and gave them a white sheet of paper with contact information, “Here, see this doctor, he’s a heart specialist.” So they went to see him. When you go to see a heart specialist you always get the sense that they are listening, not to your words, but to your heart. And then when they strap you to heart machines that spew endless pages, and they study the pages with grave concentration; you are tempted to tell them, “If you see a black blotch, that’s nothing – that’s just a heartbreak I suffered when I was 26.”
Gee underwent open heart surgery at KNH and didn’t cough for four months but then started coughing up some brown stuff. He was readmitted into KNH’s private wing and the last thing he told his wife, Alice, was the night before he was due for an echo ultrasound the following morning: “Please, don’t be late, tomorrow,” because Alice and time were like a collabo between Maroon Five and Maroon Commandos; ain’t happening. The next morning Gee checked out early, an hour before she arrived at the hospital and two hours before the procedure. She was informed at the doorway when she got to the ward. She sank onto the bench, shell shocked, unable to cry at first. Thinking, how? He told me not to be late, I’m here an hour early. I’m here. I’m not late. But he’s not here. He left, but not for the echocardiogram. How is this possible? She then made calls to his mother to inform her that her son was dead. Everything was so dark and blurry. One of their relatives, the first to come in, said Gee’s body was still in the bed, and it was still warm. Like he was just napping. But she wouldn’t go in to see Gee, not when now people were referring to him as “his body.” She sat on the bench, making calls on autopilot, saying, “Hello, yeah, Gee is dead. Come.” Then making another call, “Hi, yeah, not good. He’s dead.” Or, “He’s dead, yes, just now.” Then she cried a roaring river.
“I was 33 years old and a widow.” Alice tells me on WhatsApp video call at 6am my time. She’s abroad and it’s night time there. Her big hair fills the screen. She has one of those faces one would describe as both feminine and strong. If you saw her in the streets, locking her car door, you’d be compelled to think, ‘that lady is an activist.’ She has the face of those people who fight for something – a cause – for years on end. They have a look of stoicism. “He [Gee] had celebrated his 34th birthday a month earlier. We had small kids aged 8, 6 and two years. We had plans to build a house, to school our children, you know, the kind of plans young couples have.”
Going back home to tell your young children that their father is dead is heart wrenching. You can rehearse that conversation for years but it will never be easy. It’s the look on their faces when you say the words; daddy didn’t make it. You avoid the word “dead” because it’s a poisonous word next to your children, a word you are afraid might kill them emotionally. So before you face them you grapple with euphemisms that serve the same purpose but when you finally see their faces, these children who didn’t ask to be here, who don’t deserve to lose their father, you break down and you cry before you can utter a word. And you say you are sorry while crying, apologising on behalf of death. “My eldest broke down and really cried,” Alice says, “ My six year old kept asking if he will come back from heaven. My two year old was too young to understand what was going on.”
I picture this two year old growing up and looking at his father’s picture, a stranger no doubt, trying to home in on their genetic radar. Wondering what kind of a man he was, if he liked oranges as well and perhaps, later, looking in the mirror and realising that, yes, we have the same eyes. And finding this information both comforting and completely useless.
After Gee died, she was left alone with their three children. And jobless. Her employer had not renewed her two-year teaching contract. So she spent her grieving days also worrying about her future and the future of her babies. Luckily the school Gee used to teach at called her and offered her his position, which she took. “But it’s still tough to be a widow at that age with three children. It’s very difficult and confusing. You don’t have anything to refer to.”
“When you think of that moment, a fresh widow, a mother of three, what comes to mind?”
“How small things would trigger my grief,” she says, “like dragging a stool to change the lightbulb, that would get me really crying because I had never had to change a light bulb because Gee was always there and he was so tall he didn’t need a stool to change a light bulb.” On top of having to tell the children that their father was now gone, she also had to step up and take up the responsibility of being their father. It was a foreign and challenging terrain, being able to be strong before the children and also being able to do the things that needed to be done. “There are things you don’t think about, like when the car breaks down. Suddenly you have to call people to ask for a mechanic then learn how to speak to him like a man would,” she laughs. “But my colleagues rallied around me, I had relatives who dotted on the kids.”
Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months. She grieved. Some days were better. Some days were shit. She would sit in the sun on Sundays and imagine going back inside to find Gee, big feet up, reading a newspaper. She gave the children all the love she could give, all the love they deserved from both parents, one of whom was dead now. She studied them, as they did their homework, or stirred their tea, or looked for their clothes in drawers, or slept, and she prayed for more strength and more life to see them grow and do good by them. Life dragged on. The sun filtered in through the curtains in the mornings and left through the bathroom window in the evenings. Sounds of her children filled the house, sometimes drowning her grief, other times amplifying it. Years fell off the calendar on the wall; 2007 became 2013.
One day she went to see a doctor to have a look at an annoying lump on her neck. It wasn’t bothering her, but who wants a lump on their neck? Nobody. The doctor took a biopsy, sent it to the lab where she was told to collect the results after a week. A week later she went to the lab at Nairobi Hospital and picked up her lab results. “I don’t know why I did this but as I walked towards the gate, I decided to open this envelope and there I saw under diagnosis the ugliest words- Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.” She says. “Now, I didn’t know what Hodgkin was, but I knew what Lymphoma was. I knew it was cancer and it knocked me so hard in the chest I couldn’t breath. I wanted to sit on the hot ground, right at the gate. I was terrified and confused and breathless.”
“What’s the first thing that came to your mind?”
“My children! My poor children! I thought oh my God, I have cancer. I will die. I will surely die and then my children will remain orphans!” She says as a dog barks next door. I have a new neighbour who has a dog. A little fluffy thing, the type of dog you can accessorize with your purse and shoes. Said neighbour is a sweet, frail-looking Indian girl whose mystery follows around like a shadow. One day I plan to knock on her door and tell her, “OK, what’s your story really. You showing up here with this dog, sitting outside in your old chair, smoking your cigarettes with that far-away look.” I know she is running away from something – and it’s not the police. I know people in flight. I have been there once.
Alice was a Catholic girl with a strong Catholic ecosystem around her. They formed a prayer chain and they prayed for her. “They carried me in prayer and in encouragement,” are her words. Carried me. I like that. Like a prayer is a flying carpet. They told her it was stage one cancer and she started seeing doctors, soon her insurance petered out. “It’s important to say that God showed me a vision during my moments of prayer.” She says.
“What vision, like a dream?” I asked, my eyebrows arched. I’m always skeptical of people who talk of God showing them visions, as if they are Moses with the burning bush.
“No, like a vision,” she says cryptically, with a small smile.
“Was it like a dream?”
“No, I was wide awake.”
“Yeah, but you have to buy my book to know what that vision was,” she laughs.
“You have a book?”
“Yeah. I’m writing one.”
The dog barks again. At that point I make a mental note to title this story ‘ The Dog That Barked At The Vision’. Maybe not.
“Were you ever bitter with God when you found out you had cancer?”
“No, I was never bitter, but I was angry sometimes.”
She started raising money through friends and colleagues and when she had 800K she was on a flight to India. A window seat. She landed in Bangalore on her 40th birthday. It was still dark, dawn about to break, when she got off the plane, thinking, ‘this isn’t how I thought I’d spend my 40th birthday, carrying stage one cancer on my neck, a cancer with a bad name.’ I think all cancers have bad names. I’m pretty sure there is someone called Malaria in the world, but I can’t imagine anyone with a name like Osteosarcoma Phillips.
“How did you break it to your kids that you had cancer?” I ask, “what did you tell them?”
“I told them I wasn’t well. My eldest was sitting for her KCPE at that time so I didn’t want to burden her, or distract her,” she says, “ but I think I gave them this information in bits and pieces. By the time they discovered it as cancer I was way ahead in my recovery.”
In India they upgraded her cancer to stage two. (Why, thanks, doc! How generous!”) Treatment started in earnest; chemo and drugs and nights of lying in bed in a small hotel, the window opening to the sound of late night motorbikes zipping down the vacant streets. “When you go to India and see other cancer patients, it’s so ugly that you stop feeling so sorry for yourself.” She came back after a week, did another round of treatment at MP Shah then boarded another plane back to India when the kids were on half-term in school. This second time Indian doctors with determined looks probed and poked her neck with their fingers and instruments and finally said, “ I think we beat this fucker, you are cancer free.” She curled in a small ball and wept with relief, gratitude and faith. Her children were not going to be orphans anymore. They would not be destitute. God had given her more time with them.
She came back and went on with life but then something as bad as cancer started seeping into her life this time; loneliness. She had and loved (still does) God, yes, but God doesn’t sit at your kitchen and you tell Him how your day was. Well, you can, yes, but he won’t respond, ‘Your boss sounds like an ass.’ She had her children, “And my children gave me so much joy, raising them, seeing them thrive and choose their own paths but there is normally this hole that children can’t fill.” It’s a yawning hole, of feeling devoid of love, of needing affection from a man. The kind of love you can get from someone with terrible toe-nails, those men with toenails that can open a soda bottle, or open a jammed door, but who somehow still manage to really fill your life with beauty, making you feel complete.
“ I started looking for love online,” she says. Not on Twitter or Instagram or – God forbid – Tinder but those conservative dating websites where folk sign up and look for people with the same interests. The ones with proper profile photos, of proper people posing like they are in a photo studio, not photos of ass and tits and men in undersized shirts showing off their muscles or abs. “I met crazies,” she says, “Men masquerading, trying to wipe you clean. Kamaus going by John Smiths. You learn the ropes fast.”
“What’s the name of some of these sites?”
“Eharmony, was one,” she says, “ I also did match.com. Met a few people but nothing that matched.”
In May 2017 she went to the US to visit her sister and friends in Kansas. During the day, when her sister was off to work, she’d find herself bored at home. She hadn’t been on the dating sites for a while, so she decided to log in and see how those streets were. There she met a Dr. Booth. She was 43, he was 51. They seemed to be a good match. He was an older gentleman, was serious about his faith like she was, a God-fearing man, witty and intelligent. They chatted for a while. She looked forward to their conversations and soon they decided to meet. He was an hour away in Kansas. They had a fun date. She came back to Kenya and they chatted and video called a lot. He came down to visit then she went back.
She doesn’t tell me exactly what happens after, she simply says the rest is history, but Dr. Booth to me sounds like the kind of dude who one day looked at her over a cup of coffee and said, “I know something that would fit you perfectly,” and thinking it was a dress, she giggled and said, “ What colour is it?” and he said, “Mrs. Booth.” That to me sounds like how a God-fearing man from Kansas would propose.[OK. OK. I’m calm.]
They got married in 2018.
“Is he Catholic as well?”
“No, he belongs to a church called Velocity Church.”
“Oh, moving at a high velocity towards God.” I say and she laughs and says, “I sure hope so.”
In March 2019, she packed everything including her babies and relocated to Lawrence, Kansas. The children loved and embraced him, always have because “They craved a father, they wanted a father. I used to see this when their school would want them to come with their fathers and their uncles or their friends’ fathers would step in. I could see how hard that was for them, they felt left out. So Booth coming into our lives was good for them. But I also realise that the need to have a father is usually greater when they are younger and growing, but at a certain age, when they have grown into people with their own interests and personalities, the need isn’t as urgent.”
Two months after getting married she told her husband, “Something funny is happening to my body.” He looked up from the book he was reading. She said, “I think I’m pregnant.” It was impossible. Before she had chemo doctors in India had asked her if she wanted her eggs frozen for a chance to get babies later and she had laughed and told them, “Get babies at 40? Nah. I’m not freezing anything.” The doctors had assured her that after the chemo there was no chance of ever getting pregnant.
When she peed on a stick it turned out that she was pregnant. They laughed in shock because they had not been trying to get a baby. It was out of the question, biologically. How could she get pregnant after chemo? Besides she was 45 years old and he was 53 years old! “The kids were excited. Ashley, my second had always asked me to get another child. She kept wondering why I couldn’t adopt. She was particularly over the moon.” She says. Now they had a miracle baby.
Taji was born. It means crown. She has crowned their marriage and crowned her life. Her eldest is Vanessa who is 21, her second is Ashley, 19, JP the boy is 15 and lastly Taji the baby. I ask her how motherhood is now at her age. Does she struggle with it or enjoy it more now?
“Motherhood in your 40s is like hitting a reset button. I had to relearn everything. I had even forgotten how to change diapers. But by the same token, I have experience on my side now, I don’t get into a panic when Taji rolls off and falls off the seat,” we both chuckle because we are terrible adults who find it funny when children fall off chairs while sleeping. I particularly find it hilarious, if I’m being honest. How they hit the carpet and for a moment they wake up wondering what the hell just happened or where they are; am I in hell? What is that plant? I don’t remember the windows looking that way, am in in Kiza? Then their mouths open but not in a perfect O, and it stays that way for a few seconds then an ugly scream leaves their lungs as if they are undergoing surgery without anaesthesia. Babies are too dramatic.
“But it’s exciting to have a baby now,” she continues. “Currently I’m a stay-at-home mom so I’m not worried about caretakers. I’m also in a more financially stable situation with this baby than I was with the other three. I have had more experience raising them so I’m not pressured. I’m an old hand.”
“The down side?”
“The pregnancy took a toll on my back and not just because I was old, ha-ha, but because she was the biggest baby, twice the size of my previous biggest one at 3.5kgs. The others were preemies.” [Note to the men at the back; preemies are premature babies.]. She continues. “I’m bracing my old old bones to start chasing after her now that she’s about to turn one and become more mobile. I’m lucky that her siblings and hubby help out a lot with her.”
“Do you worry that when she is much older you will be those ageing parents who go for school events,” I say, “ Walking slowly like old people, wearing sensible shoes and looking very lost and bewildered in the throng of young parents. And she will deny you guys, she will say, ‘oh them, those are just my grandparents.’” Kids can be little Judasses.
She laughs. “We joke about it all the time. We have seen other parents who are essentially grandparents in my kids’ school so I think we might have company in future. But I think it can’t be a bad thing. I’m trying to learn from my past parenting mistakes and be a better parent for her now. You know, be more present, be more patient. I spent a lot of time hustling and raising the others and that eats into the time you have with your children. I want to have a closer mother-daughter relationship with her.”
It’s late where she is, so she needs to join Dr. Booth in bed. She closes the conversation by saying, “If any woman is reading this, I hope they see that it’s never too late. Society has placed these timelines on our paths where you have to have done certain things by a certain time. There is no timeline. It’s never too late to get married, never too late to have children, never too late to start afresh in a different country, never too late to be a different person and live a different life. I’m 47, and by societal norms, I shouldn’t be here doing these things, but I am doing.”
No announcement today other than email a SYNOPSIS [He-he] of your fatherhood or motherhood story to [email protected].
If you aren’t a mother or a father then just go buy my latest book here.